Families drive golf in Thailand


Sean Dudley

At a time when golf course development is the domain mostly of multinational companies, three Thai families are showing that an important place remains for private family investment and management in the game.

In each case, the Phornprapha family's Siam Country Club, the Samakoses family's Chiang Mai Highlands and Muang Kaew courses and the Pongsak family's Suwan Golf and Country Club owe their current status in Thai golf circles to the foresight and dedication of the current chief executives' grandfathers.

All were visionaries and self-made men who acquired land in expanding areas, turning it into a productive business that just happened to be golf courses.

The grandfather of Chai Phornprapha, managing director of Siam Country Club near Pattaya, ran a junkyard business that recycled old parts and machinery. From there, he developed business relationships in Japan that grew into a manufacturing joint venture in Thailand with Japanese partners. It proved so successful that additional manufacturing joint ventures soon followed.

But golf is also important, as Siam Country Club's twin courses – with a third being built – demonstrate. More than 80,000 golfers a year, many from overseas, play at Siam Country Club's Old and Plantation courses each year. The former farming land – that grew pineapples, tapioca and sugar cane – has been owned by the Phornprapha family for more than 40 years. Its Old course, built in 1970, was the first privately-owned golf course in Thailand and has hosted the Honda LPGA Classic for the past two years, as well as in 2008. By the time the Waterside course opens in 2014, annual visitor numbers at the three courses will exceed 120,000.

The managing director of Muang Kaew Golf Club on the outskirts of Bangkok, Woranon Samakoses, also owes the family's business success to his grandfather. “He was a visionary who understood that Bangkok would grow eastward, so he started acquiring land out this way,” Samakoses said.

Muang Kaew is situated on some of the original acreage along the main commercial industrial corridor between Thailand's capital city and the eastern seaboard. Today, Muang Kaew, which opened in 1992 and was renovated by Schmidt-Curley in 2005, is the closest golf course to the heart of the city.

The family's other golf course, Chiang Mai Highlands, was built in 2007, also to a Schmidt-Curley design, after another land acquisition. Waranon's father had been looking for investment land in northern Thailand for retirement. Already having a golf course in Bangkok made him think about turning their purchase near Chiang Mai into a golf course.

The grandfather of Suwan Golf and Country Club's managing director, Pongsakorn Pongsak, established textile business interests that became the foundation for hotel, managed apartment, and shopping center investments.

Suwan, which opened in 2005, derives its name from the original textile company, Suwan Spindle and Weaving. Today, the textile business is the top producer of yarn in Thailand, while the family has also invested in residential and commercial real estate.

“We all loved golf in my family, so it was natural for us to expand into building the Suwan golf course,” Pongsak explained. The decision was also strategic as the property is located just west of Bangkok in an area earmarked for a new seaport that will facilitate direct shipping routes to Europe. “In addition to the strategic location, our experience in the hotel business played a part in our decision to get involved in golf,” he said. “We saw the impact of authentic Thai service, something our culture is naturally good at, and we wanted to bring genuine Thai hospitality to Suwan.”

Here lies a common thread among all three families. Each is committed to owning world-class golf courses that are supported by 100 per cent Thai staff, with first-class amenities and service.

They also operate pure golf venues without on-site hotel or real estate development.

“We have 70,000 hotel rooms within 25 minutes,” said Chai Phornprapha. “This is not to say that we'll never build a hotel, but this land has been in the family for a long time so we are able to sustain very good revenues by providing a first-rate golf experience.”

“At Muang Kaew and Chiang Mai Highlands every effort is made to preserve our Thai heritage in every detail because it has become clear that our culture of warm friendly service, combined with excellent value, attracts both our regular customers and visiting guests,” added Waranon Samokoses.

All three played golf regularly when growing up, but never thought seriously about assuming responsibility for running a golf course until their respective family investments occurred.

While it may no longer be common for private families to develop golf courses, the first golf course in Thailand – Royal Hua Hin – was built in 1924 at the behest of the Thai royal family.

In their own way, the Phornprapha, Samakoses and Pongsak families are continuing the tradition.